19 fun things to do in Tampa, Florida
By Helen Wright
You may have noticed, but here at passportstamps.uk, we love Florida. After a year of lockdown, we’re craving sunny places and happy faces, and the USA’s sunshine state offers that abundance. Orlando usually tops the list of places to go in Florida, but one of the hottest spots right now is Tampa. If it’s not already on your radar, there are so many fun things to do in Tampa. The city on the Bay is slowly emerging as a top destination in its own right as well as a great place to tag onto your trip to Orlando.
You may have seen from our growing Disney, Universal and Orlando content that we spend a lot of time in Central Florida. We are often asked to recommend places to visit alongside a trip to Orlando (especially by Brits visiting from the UK). You may have seen our posts on Miami and The Florida Keys but, we recently got to spend more time in the Tampa Bay Area and discovered it has so much to offer, especially for families. Seriously, you might want to consider adding another week to your trip! British Airways and Norwegian Air* fly direct from London to Tampa, so you could even fly into Tampa and out of Orlando International Airport to save a few hours’ driving time and spend it by the pool instead!
Cover image: Matthew Paulson
* Norwegian has currently ceased flights until 2021 due to Coronavirus
Fun things to do in Tampa with kids – and without them!
I visited Tampa with my family (including three-year-old Finn and baby Isobel) and I was blown away by the amount of fun things to do in Tampa with kids. This place is a hot rival for Orlando when it comes to family fun. I was also really impressed with Tampa’s food scene. I was barely half way through my trip and already on the phone with the bestie, plotting to return for a kid-free getaway to eat (and drink) ourselves into foodie heaven. Forbes Magazine recently voted Tampa one of the best cities for Millennials, so if you’re footloose and child-free in Florida, you’ll fit right in.
Disclaimer: Some of the activities we enjoyed in Tampa were offered on a complimentary basis, but like all the unbiased and honest posts on passportstamps.uk, this had no impact on our opinion of Tampa.
19 fun things to do in Tampa
We discovered there were so many fun things to do in Tampa and these are our top 19 Tampa must-sees:
1. The Tampa Riverwalk
We stayed at the Sheraton Downtown Riverwalk, a spacious hotel with huge rooms and a good-sized pool that looks over the waterfront. One of the things that really resonated with me is how easy, breezy and chilled out Downtown Tampa is. The Riverwalk is a great place to start if you have just arrived and want a feel for the southwest Florida vibe. The 2.5-mile, modern waterside trail stretches south to north and perfectly showcases the outdoorsy, fair weather lifestyle enjoyed by Tampa locals. Starting at the south end, have a drink at the Sail Pavilion, a 360-degree, open-air waterfront bar. It’s definitely a touristy spot, but the atmosphere is lively and you are usually treated to a pretty spectacular sunset as night falls.
2. Spot the friendly neighbourhood Manatees
Take a casual morning stroll and pass cyclists, skateboarders, joggers and dog walkers on the boardwalk and paddle-boarders and kayakers on the water. If you’re lucky, you might even spot one of the friendly local manatees who frequent the waters here. Word has it; a good place to get a glimpse of these endangered species is along the boat dock at Water Works park, so keep a eye out for their cute little snouts coming up for air.
The Riverwalk offers such varied views as you wander along. There are open spaces and parks, views of the city skyline, bars and restaurants and residential areas. We spotted temporary art installations, public-use musical instruments, swinging chairs and children’s playgrounds. Sights to keep an eye out for are the interactive fountains at Curtis Hixon Park and the curious and majestic University of Tampa across the river – a National Historic Landmark, the University was constructed in 1891 by Henry B. Plant who was inspired by the mosques and palaces of Morocco and Tunisia, and played a leading role in recreating Moorish Revival architecture in the USA. The Riverwalk is ideal for families but we also found it perfect for a mid-afternoon romantic (child-free) wander in the sun.
3. Flag down a Pirate Water Taxi
If you don’t fancy walking the length of the Riverwalk, you can also pick up the Pirate Water Taxi from a choice of 15 stops along the same route. These quirky yellow boats offer a swift way to travel the length of the riverwalk and Davis Island. Prices are a bit steep, $20 adult and $10 children for a day pass, but if you plan on hitting a lot of spots, the service does run from 11.30am to 10.30pm, so a bit of planning will ensure value for money.
4. Eat at Ulele
I had heard good things about Ulele (Ū-lë-lē) prior to our visit and it absolutely lived up to expectations. The concept was created by Tampa Bay’s Gonzmart family, now in their fifth generation as owners of Florida’s oldest restaurant, The Columbia (more on that later). Ulele restaurant and craft brewery opened after a $5 million restoration of Tampa’s original public water pump house, which drew from a spring that once supplied all the city’s drinking water.
The huge, open-plan restaurant is so impressive, flooded with light and decorated with some incredible art and sculptures. There is a choice of inside and outside seating, but I would definitely recommend booking a table inside, where the atmosphere is buzzing. The menu is inspired by Tampa Bay’s early native and Spanish explorers, with dishes featuring less common ingredients (especially for the international visitor) as well as locally caught fish from Florida’s fresh waters. A must-try is the ‘Native Chili’ ($6) – made with a traditional early settler recipe of Alligator, wild boar, venison, duck, ground chuck, cranberry
beans and chili spices. Most meat and fish dishes are prepared on the 10′ diameter barbacoa grill, impressibly fired up in the middle of the dining room. Simon couldn’t get enough of the Duroc bone-in pork chop with guava demi-glace and popcorn mashed potatoes. I went for fresh Snapper (I can’t resit Snapper when I’m in Florida) but added the Okra fries.
Eating was definitely becoming one of the most fun things to do in Tampa for all of us. With most kids’ meals consisting of burgers and chicken nuggets with chips, I was most impressed with the Ulele kids menu which included options that allow kids to sample the native flavours that the restaurant is celebrated for. Finn’s meal (beef with mash and vegetables) was a triumph and he was delighted with such a grown up dinner. As well as house-brewing craft beer, Ulele also make their own ice cream, so definitely leave room for dessert. The Candied Bacon Maple Ice Cream ($9) is wonderful. Simon had already devoured a Guava cheesecake but that didn’t stop him helping me finish it!
If you are planning a visit to Ulele, keep a whole afternoon or evening free for the experience. Lunch is the ideal time because you can take a slow walk there along the Riverwalk, then start with a drink on the patio, wander around the lawns and even feed fish in the springwater pond. For the early evening, the patio is another great place to enjoy Tampa’s flirtatious sunsets. TOP TIP: You can ask for drinks to be served in a disposable cup and enjoy a night cap for the walk home too. Perfect!
5. Feast on the Tampa Food Scene
Ulele isn’t the only place serving up the best food in Tampa. The city has been quietly carving out a reputation for being one of the coolest foodie cities in the USA. As well as some excellent restaurants to choose from, modern food halls are becoming the hottest places to eat. Plus, they make eating with the family really easy because they have vendors that cater for all tastes and huge communal seating areas to spread out in. In order to experience the Tampa culinary scene, make sure you tick off at least two or more of our favourite food joints during your stay (plus Ulele, of course):
6. Heights Public Market at Armature Works
The Heights Public Market at Armature Works is also situated along the Riverwalk in the historic Tampa Heights neighbourhood. We had some great food here and it became one of our favourite places and fun things to do in Tampa, for both lunch, and in the evening. Housed in a former 1900s trolley barn, the market has an excellent range of restaurants and bars, plus a choice of indoor and outdoor seating. As well as a huge garden terrace, there is also a rooftop dining area and bar that offers fantastic waterfront views of the city.
Top dining choices include Southern grill, Steelbach, (the food hall’s flagship restaurant and bar), Imoto (modern Japanese), Ava (local, cult wood-fired pizza joint) and Zukku Sushi. I was browsing the market trying to decide on a vendor, when a stranger passed by with the show-stopping Lobster Volcano Roll from Zukku Sushi. I chased after her to find out where I could order my own and it was a sensation.
7. The Hall on Franklin
This less dramatic, but by no means inferior, food hall offers a slightly different choice of culinary delights. Confusingly, it labels itself as ‘European influenced’ but we found it had more of a Southern / Mexican vibe. However, by night the place is buzzing with a lively nightlife scene that us Brits can get definitely get on board with. Try Xilo (Mexican Street Food) and The Collection (American with a global flavours). By night, ‘The Hall’ as the neighbours say, hosts DJ sessions and live music. It’s also a top spot for a hipster brunch – with a Bloody Mary, of course.
8. Sparkman Wharf
Take the vintage Streetcar to Sparkman Wharf, an outdoor market with pop-up stalls from some of Tampa Bay’s top chefs. The colourful huts are set right on the waterfront and surround a centrepiece biergarten, featuring local beers from Florida’s craft brewing hub. The outdoor stage hosts concerts, free movies and sports fixtures. For food, we loved the mix of locally-sourced flavours at Naked Farmer as well as the cheeky name.
9. The Florida Aquarium
Next up, some family fun – but I’m not going to lie, I think the adults in our group enjoyed it the most! The Florida Aquarium is located in downtown Tampa and you can ride the free streetcar right to the door. If you have time, plan to stay for the whole day to enjoy the 200,000 sq. ft showcase of life under the sea and one of the most fun things to do in Tampa. Expect marine life from river otters, alligators, sea turtles, stingrays, wondrous leafy sea dragons, reef fish, eels, sharks and more throughout the aquarium. We loved the jellyfish touching tank – it was the first time any of us had touched a jellyfish! The 500,000-gallon Coral Reef habitat is also fantastic and educational.
I was thrilled to see sculptures from Washed Ashore, a project highlighting the damage caused by plastic in the sea. We visited the original gallery during our Oregon road trip. There is also Penguin Meet & Greet (cute!) and Finn loved the outdoor Splash Pad playground and 4-D Theatre, which happened to be showing his favourite show – Octonauts!
10. Busch Gardens
So, we couldn’t write about the most fun things to do in Tampa without a mention of one of our favourite theme parks, Busch Gardens. The 335-acre wildlife-themed adventure park is a 20-minute drive from the city and really does have something for everyone! Animal lovers can spot 200 species of animals and birds at the park and enjoy up-close interactions, such as the Serengeti Safari that I did with my dad (above). There is a brilliant Sesame Street-themed area for toddlers with gentle rides, a splash area and an interactive playground. But the big draw for Busch Gardens is the huge amount of white-knuckle rides – some of the fastest, tallest and definitely scariest, rides in Florida! For the best ticket deals, buy your tickets before you leave the UK.
See our video featuring some of the epic rides and find out why Busch Gardens and the SeaWorld parks were ideal for our multi-family trip:
Tampa attractions: where to find the most fun things to do in Tampa
11. ZooTampa at Lowry Park
On a fine day, a wander around the zoo is a great way to soak up the Florida sun and ZooTampa, in the middle of Lowry Park, provides the perfect setting. Less hectic than the adrenalin-fuelled Busch Gardens, ZooTampa has 2000 animals, some top educational programmes and a pick of wildlife-themed rides – including the new Roaring Springs water ride that has a 30-foot plunge into the depths below. ZooTampa is also the nation’s only non-profit hospital and rehabilitation center for injured West Indian manatees. Since 1991, the zoo has treated hundreds of manatees and released many of them back into the wild.
12. Sail off on a pirate ship
The Lost Pearl Pirate Ship Adventure
When it comes to boat trips, this fun-packed voyage is definitely one of a kind. If you haven’t heard, Tampa has a quite random ‘pirate’ history that legend says is actually completely made up. However, that hasn’t stopped the pirate flag becoming the unofficial Tampa emblem and from January every year, 300,000 people show up for the Gasparilla Pirate Festival and Pirate Parade.
During non-festival times, you will have to celebrate with a choice of Tampa’s year-round pirate attractions. We sampled The new Lost Pearl Pirate Ship Adventure – a 1.5-hour interactive pirate ship cruise around the Bay. I was skeptical at first, we arrived to a crew of actors in pirate costume for the themed trip. I worried it might be a bit naff, but it was actually a few hours of enjoyable, silly fun with some spectacular sunsets thrown in for good measure.
Of the fun things to do in tampa, this one is definitely a family attraction, but other guests on our cruise did include a group of friends, a few couples and of course, parents with children. There is a bar (gratefully) and the crew provide an intermittent comedy commentary with pirate related stories and useful tourist sights. There is an immersive element where guests are asked to help defend our ship from rival pirates who arrive on a small boat and try to steal the treasure! The kids LOVED this and offered something very different to your average, serene boat trip. Children are also able to go onto the deck and shoot water cannons into the sea, so of course Finn was delighted!
13. Watch wild dolphins play
Spotting wildlife isn’t guaranteed, but keep an eye out for friendly dolphins as they often swim alongside the boats in Tampa Bay and, sure enough, we saw a pod of dolphins just as the sun was setting! We got to see them up close, which was exciting – but, sorry to say, my pictures don’t really do them justice… Then, as we sailed back into Tampa Bay, we were treated to a stunning sunset.
We all agreed that we loved the Lost Pearl Adventure in the end. It was a great mix of calm sightseeing, family fun and simple entertainment. (Adult $28, Child $25)
14. Feel the history in Ybor City
The origins of a city often play a huge role in defining its personality and Tampa is no different. In fact, Tampa owes its appeal to the rich mix of Cuban, Spanish and Italian immigrants that populated the city during the cigar boom of the 1880s. After Vicente Martinez Ybor moved his Cuban cigar factories to Tampa, immigrants were recruited to work in the factories and ‘Ybor City’, was born. As a result, the neighbourhood is now known for its culture and cuisine.
Head, first, to historic 7th Avenue, and wander the street with a café con leche in one hand and your camera in the other. The street is a beautiful display of Spanish architecture, New Orleans-style wrought iron balconies and street art, lined with Florida palm trees. Ybor City has a colourful art scene (for young, creative arts check out the gallery at Hillsborough Community College Ybor City Campus). It’s also an under-the-rader hub for vintage shopping with Vintage Roost (a twice monthly vintage market) and fashions from pre-loved shops La France and Revolve Clothing Exchange. On Saturdays, there is a fun street-food market with local stalls and live music. Oh, and by the way, it is pronounced Ee-bore. So now you know.
15. Columbia Restaurant
Ybor city is also home to Florida’s oldest restaurant and Tampa institution, The Columbia. Founded in 1906, the restaurant is still owned by the same family and is the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. The Columbia is impressive – with 15 dining rooms and space for 1700 seats, there are even daily guided tours of the building. Enjoy the incredible display of hand-painted tiles, which represent every era of the restaurant’s history. We didn’t have time to eat there (sadly) but the Empanadas de Picadillo ($8) and the crab-stuffed shrimp ($27) come highly recommended. Considering the acclaimed restaurant was one of only 50 restaurants in the USA to be named on NRN’s All American Icon list and has won a list of awards, the menu is reasonably-priced with most entrees around the $25 mark and wines average $30 for the bottle.
16. Play date at the Glazer Children’s museum
I was so impressed with the Glazer Children’s museum – it’s absolutely perfect if you are visiting with younger children. It tops the list of fun things to do in Tampa with kids and makes a change from Florida’s usual huge theme parks and action-packed tourist haunts. They have a huge role-play area where kids can dress up and pretend to be a fireman, mechanic, doctor, farmer (etc). Full-size themed rooms double up as climbing frames and play houses. There is an incredible climbing net / art instillation that is suspended above the staircase – for mini daredevils. Designed to represent the ‘journey of water’ from clouds to ground and back up again, Finn just loved the challenge and freedom of being able to explore and climb independently because, at age three, it wasn’t too difficult for him.
We had no idea when we set off to visit the Glazer Children’s Museum that there was a temporary Paw Patrol exhibit open there too. For no extra charge, Finn was able to run around a real life Adventure Bay, complete with Lookout Tower and Paw Patroller. He was giddy with excitement and we ended up spending a few hours longer at the museum than planned. It has sadly finished now but the museum hosts temporary exhibits year-round, so have a look and see what’s coming up.
17. Travel back in time on a vintage Streetcar
Transport geeks (like me and Finn) get excited when there are different types of bus, tram, train (anything really!) to ride when we travel. Plus, in America (particularly in states like Florida) you do end up spending a lot of time in the car. We were both chuffed to spot these vintage Streetcars cheerfully running up and down and our hotel pointed us in the right direction to hop on for a ride.
In their heyday, Tampa’s Birney cars and the sound of their service bell was a rush hour staple. Constructed in 1892, workers took the streetcar downtown and to the cigar factories of west Tampa. By the 1920s they were carrying almost 24 million passengers a year. After World War II, they were replaced by cars and buses and taken out of service. But in 2002, the vintage, electric streetcars were restored and began operating again along a 2.7-mile line connecting Downtown Tampa, Channel District, and Ybor City. Now called the TECO Line Streetcar System, the heritage streetcar is free of charge and wheelchair-accessible – not to mention being one of the FREE and fun things to do in Tampa.
18. Head to St Pete Beach
It has to be said that us Brits coming to Florida do like to embrace the holiday spirit and fit in as much as we possibly can! Even though we loved all the attractions in Tampa, we decided to rent a car and drive to the beach for the weekend.
We have a whole post on the best ways to rent a car in the USA and everything you need to know about driving in America.
For this trip, we booked a rental car using hertz.co.uk. Booking via a UK site saves complications with insurance (a lot of Americans can rent cars with their own motor insurance, often making the add-on cover Stateside expensive). Plus, we had used Hertz before in Florida and for our California road trips, and have always had great service and cars, so we felt really comfortable booking with them again.
St Pete Beach is only a 20-minute drive from Tampa, over the impressive Skyway bridge (drive over at night when the bridge is illuminated with colourful lights – it looks amazing.). The wide, sandy beach benefits from calm, warm waters from the gulf of Mexico and enjoys an average of 361 days of sunshine a year. Unfortunately for us, the odds were not in our favour… We managed to pick a dud weekend where it rained almost constantly, so I’m sad to say we didn’t get to enjoy St Pete at its best.
Having said that, it didn’t put us off. We embraced some of St Pete’s iconic tourist sights, such as the quaint Gulf Beaches Historical Museum and wandered around the famous, Gatsby-esk ‘Pink Palace’ – the legendary Don CeSar hotel. We enjoyed some of the beach community’s smaller, independent businesses and shops (including an epic year-round Christmas shop, which really confused the kids), lunch at Caddy’s on the Beach and lots of all-you-can-eat snow crab and Key Lime Pie.
We also took a drive down to the colourful and character-filled Pass a Grille – somewhere I definitely want to revisit on my next trip. Finally, as we were packing up the car to head back to Downtown Tampa, the sun came out! So we stayed a few more hours and got a chance to play on the beach and finally experience St Pete in (almost) all its glory.
18. Go shopping at Hyde Park Village
For a more manicured afternoon, the upscale Hyde Park Village is a cute area with boutique shopping, elegant restaurants and nightlife. The surrounding residential areas are also pleasant for a summer stroll, with some beautiful American homes to ogle at. And, if you need a sugar fix, you don’t need to worry as they also have a 24/7 cupcake ATM!
19. Goody Goody burger – best breakfast in Tampa
Goody Goody Burger is another iconic spot to tick off from Tampa’s list of foodie favourites. In the heart of Hyde Park Village, the popular Goody Goody was actually one of America’s first drive-in restaurants. Originally opening in 1925, the restaurant closed in 2005 but was recently reopened as a modern diner – much to the delight of Tampa’s hungry locals. The diner is a beautiful example of classic Americana and the menu is a throwback to the glory days of the American diner featuring the historic ‘POX burger’ (beef with pickles, onions and a secret sauce, $5.95) and home-baked pie (baked fresh every day and they always sell out). We were too full for dessert but I heard the butterscotch pie ($6 a slice) is to die for.
We actually went for breakfast, so I never got to try to the famous Goody Goody burger but if it’s half as good as their morning offering, I’m pretty confident you wont be disappointed. Often mentioned on ‘best breakfast in Tampa’ lists, we had a feast, including the OMG! French Toast ($8.95) – so good – and the Tampa Omelette (Bacon, jalapeño, onion, red pepper, cheddar and home fries, $9.50). Finn had a kid’s pancake – which was absolutely enormous! Between eating like a king and so many fun things to do in Tampa, I think it’s fair to say that Finn had a fantastic time.
With Orlando being the main port of call for Brits in Florida, I’d never considered doubling up with a trip to Tampa before. But, now I know how much I’ve been missing, I can’t imagine *not* coming – even if it’s just for dinner! I was so impressed with how many fun things to do in Tampa there were, especially for families and kids. The food was an absolute highlight and, as much as I love my children, I can’t wait for the opportunity to ditch them and return to the city and sample more of the excellent dining and nightlife – so watch this space!
Heading to Florida? If you enjoyed our post on fun things to do in Tampa, check out our other Florida posts and videos:
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